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Breakthroughs in technology needed to decarbonize world’s energy system: MIT expert

17 March 2021 Bernadette Lee

Breakthroughs in technology, research and development (R&D), and large-scale deployment will be needed to decarbonize the world's energy systems, said a senior official from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2020, carbon emissions fell 7% when large parts of the global economy shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This demonstrated that changes in behavior with the current mix of energy sources are insufficient to decarbonize the global energy system, Maria Zuber, co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and vice president for research at MIT, told the CERAWeek by IHS Market conference.

"We need lots of breakthroughs in lots of different areas, and that means there are going to be lots of opportunities for people to contribute, both in R&D and the scale of deployment. There is a place in this for everybody," she said. Zuber pointed out three areas where the use of technology is needed, among others: batteries, carbon capture, and nuclear power. Storage batteries are growing in importance both for transportation and for renewable power, especially solar, to deal with intermittency issues.

Various types of technology would be needed given the different types of batteries for different purposes, she said, adding that there will be incremental breakthroughs and progress in technology for making batteries.

"At MIT, we've got a start-up called Form Energy where they are looking at a sulfur-based battery. This is a battery that can hold the charge longer term than a lithium-ion battery. And it's in the order of a factor of 10 cheaper," she said.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture is the second area where technology will be needed as countries make their energy transition, according to Zuber.

The current technology for taking carbon directly out of air is nowhere near as cost effective as it needs to be. "We need to work on that technology to make it more cost effective … There are lots of other ideas of how we could do carbon capture and some of the biological ideas of using algae microbes to take care of that for us. It's a very interesting and intriguing area of study where we need a whole lot of progress. We don't know if it is going to work out well enough, but they are certainly worth trying," she told the virtual audience.


Nuclear power is a third area that will need technological advances, Zuber said.

Most studies indicate that countries will be able to penetrate as far as they can go with renewables by 2040. To get the rest of the way to full decarbonization would be unthinkable without nuclear being part of the energy mix, she said.

MIT is currently undertaking research in fusion for both table-top type reactors and low-emission type fuels, which have seen a number of collaborations, according to Zuber. "It's really the engineering technology that we need [to] advance. Those are just several examples, and there are plenty more that needs to be done, but the point is there are lots of opportunities here to get involved," she said.

Decarbonization goals

Sharing the company's strategy on delivering clean energy and its decarbonization goals, Maria Pope, president and chief executive at Portland General Electric in Oregon, another panelist, said the clean energy transition is now the chief focus, with 80% carbon reduction the target by 2030 (from its 2010 levels) and net zero by 2040.

"We have extensive wind on our system. We are in a region blessed with hydro energy. We have a growing solar [operation], particularly with the lower and lower cost as we see solar energy comes in. This past year we just finished bringing online the first of its scale wind, solar, and battery storage facility. It's delivering reliable power into our customers," she said.

A more fully integrated power grid that would enable bringing solar from the desert Southwest and hydropower from British Columbia is the second area of focus for the company. Pope expects the project to be completed in 2022.

She said the company allows 60% of its customers to participate in smart grid technology to ensure they are compensated for helping keep the system reliable. "The more we can work with small customers like residential customers or large customers, particularly the industrial customers, the more we can make a flexible, directional system that will almost be self-healing and will be able to reduce power consumption during super-critical peak times," she said.

Pope said it is critical that newer technologies emerge soon to facilitate the US' move to net zero.

"We are going to be transitioning our own fleets, we are participating and helping transition electric vehicles across our economy, but as we move toward the next and last 20% of carbon reduction, that will take technologies that we can't yet envision at this point in time. But I am convinced, given the number of individuals, the collaboration, the sense of purpose we are bringing to this as well as partners across the United States … and the organizations you are representing, we will absolutely get there," she said, referencing her fellow panelists.


The US Trade and Development Agency (TDA) has a strong portfolio of energy transition projects, particularly clean energy, according to Acting Director Enoh Ebong, who sat on the same panel.

It focuses on providing assistance to countries it partners with, including opening up new markets and piloting new forms of technology. The challenge to TDA lies in partnering with project developers and project sponsors while at the same time meeting their needs, Ebong said.

Examples of the work that TDA is now involved in include opening up access to rural communities in many developing countries, building solar mini grids, and gaining access to more advanced technology. Partnerships with academic institutions such as MIT and George Washington University are important in helping TDA address its challenges, Ebong said. "So, we have different ways of addressing the challenges. The most important thing for us to do is to keep abreast of them and maintain connections with those that are at the forefront of design, of development, of research; so that we can adequately answer all our stakeholders. But I am thinking particularly of the private sector here and project sponsors," she said.


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